Changing Forms of “Invisibility”

Changing Forms of “Invisibility” Concerning Women in Conservative Societies

Author: Sema Erder; Translation: Begüm Acar; Editing: Beliz Baldil

A few years ago, we made a research with Selmin Kaşka about the exploitation of foreign women who came to Turkey for working.  That those women were not visible in the streets despite their multiplicity in statistics  had called our attention before this reserach.  At last, we understood that the lives in here, of those foreign women who came for working, were very diffucult owing not only to their working secretly but also to the label “prostitute” tagged on to them.

During this research we interviewed with a “Russian bride”, married to a Turkish architecture and living around Bagdat Street in İstanbul.  In this interview, the “Russian bride” told us at length that her husband and especially her mother-in-law trained her about how she could go around İstanbul without “experiencing something bad”. This training consited of being told to which districts of the city to go, which places to visit, and in which costume she could do them.  Her mother-in-law advised her to cut her hair short, to wear eye glassess even if not necessary, not to wear short skirts, and to choose her clothes colourless as much as possible.  “The Russian bride”, whom reacted to those when she first came, told us that she no longer went outside by herself after being sexually harassed in some trials of going outside alone, and that she acknowledged her mother-in-law to be right.  The Russian bride complained very much about living in such a small area in this city.

After this interview, I recalled that once my mother gave me similar advices to those that were given to “The Russian bride”.  Furthermore, I thought that I repeated similar advices to my daughter without even realizing.  That “The Russian bride” told us these advices in a mood of finding them very strange and of excitement made me realize my ability to “walk in the city without being visible”.  Walking in the city without being visible is one of the invisible rules for women’s gaining immunity.  In this respect, I do not know which one of these ensures more space or immunity for women: invisibility with covering or inivisibility without covering.  Yet, it is obvious that we all, whether covered or uncovered, try to live in a very small area.  Our differentiation from the Russian bride may be our having had very much of this stuff.

We all know, the conservative and communitarian society we live in insists on or internalizes its own rules despite all the endeavours of “modernization”.  Especially in the aspects of family and relations within the family, patriarcy is effective for all social strata in spite of some disparity in rank.  However, we are not even aware of the internalized appearings.

Studying on the topics of migration and social change for a long time, I, like other researchers studying on these topics, also observed that the “conservative-communitarian” order of solidarity in the slums has been weakening.  “The patriarchal family”, forming the basis of this solidarity order, has been affected by the shocks of migration and of the new life in the city.  Family and bonds of kinship, especially for the poor, got too tired to carry the burdens, such as obtainig housing, finding occupation, and forming the rules of a new life.

Success in the city for those coming from villages was to obtain housing, to get a permanent occupation, and to be able to form a family order dependent on these two binary roles, “man earning money” and “house-wife” which is the urban version of patriarchy.  Nevertheless, there were some obstacles in achieving this new order, such as lack of experience about living in the city, uncertainities about rules, unemployment, and insecurity.  It is obvious that increasing unemployment and poverty in latest periods particularly makes this achievement more and more diffucult.  This situation does very much affect especially the Kurds who moved to cities as a result of forced migration.  It is possible to interpret the rise of violence against women after forced migration of Kurds as ocular attacks of power relations and value system which belong to patriarchal order being weakened rapidly.

In this respect, it is obvious that it is very diffucult for families, who survive with what women and children earn and with the donations and provisions given by municipalities or congregations, to reproduce the rules and values about the patriarcal order.  It could be said that this situation greatly confusing the power and patronage relations that legitimize the patriarchal order, is percieved by all people taking part in this relation system as an infirmity and maybe causes trauma.

In fact, it is not a new phenomenon that male-dominated order feeling itself under threat.  The existence of “alternative” lives which have more egalitarian and democratic relations has long been percieved as a result of not only internal migration but also worker migration to Western Europe and the rising communication networks.  For instance, in a research by Ayhan Kaya and Ferhat Kentel about Turks in Europe, workers living there stated that they approved of many aspects of Europe such as health, social security, comfort, income level, etc; however, they did not approve of their “morality”.  We know that the reactions against the value system created by this alternative egalitarian and democratic relations are stated by such expressions as “Immoral İstanbul” or “Immoral West”.  Just as, a few days ago Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan telling, “We borrowed the immorality of Europe,” we could say that the reaction against this egalitarian relations is expressed.

It is essential to say that this anxiety in Turkey has recently been appeased by the subsistence of the family, depending on the binary roles of “man earning money” and “house wife”, that is reproduced by patriarchy with self-confidence in cities.  Therefore, I think it is very significant that family standing feeble and patriarchy being weakened as a result of such factors as recent rise of unemployment and poverty are realized tangibly.  It is very diffucult to make an estimation about what will come out of this weakening of patriarchy which is a rooted system of bonds and values: egalitarian relations as modernists expected or a new kind of patriarchy?  Nevertheless, it could be said that this weakening scares and worries women, having been used to living in patriarchal relations for generations, as much as men.  We should discuss the meaning of weakening patriarcy for women in a society like Turkey in which live approximately twelve million house wives and milions of girls brought up to be a house wives in te future.

In this respect, Ali Babacan, who associates the decreasing number of working women with the succcess of men, gave this precursory message to women as well as men.  Kaddafi who told in France that, “We will rescue French women from the streets,”  gave his message, likewise, not to French women indeed, but to all that are afraid of the weakening of patriarchy.

We know that it is one of the important activities which carried AKP to the government, that Islamist municipalities comprehended the significance of public assistence at a time of increasing poverty and unemployment, and of disintegration of traditional solidarity mechanisms.  On the other hand, we can say that the model of conservative urban family which was composed of the unity of “successful, powerful, patronizing men” and “supporting, gentle, good mother/ house-wife” that most important leaders of AKP, like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Abdullah Gül, and Ali Babacan formed with their “wives”, being always public under  their visibility,  created a role model, giving morale and confidence, for the mass which is worried about weakening male-domination.

As Ayşe Ayata states, AKP is trying to tame its male-dominated order supporting new legal arrangements and campaigns like “stop violence within the family”, “stop violence against women”, etc.  The new conservative urban family model of AKP would be based on these binary roles of “men who is respectful to his wife, who does not beat her, who is successful and patronizing” and “house wife” who demonstrates with her “new” covering style that she does respect patriarchal rules.  Advancing the goal, Recep Tayip Erdoğan prefers that this new family model would include three children, rather than the old model with two children, one girl, one boy.

It is diffucult to estimate at which degree the public assistence and the new conservative urban family “role model”  would restore the weakening patriarchal order.  In this article, I wanted to renew in the minds that the answer of a frequently debated question, “Who covers herself, why, and how?”, is very complicated and there could be diverse forms of invisibility in a conservative coutry like Turkey.  I wanted to discuss the new conservative covering style, which is, especially nowadays, mentioned with various explainations like “political symbol”, “individual belief”, “modernization”, “fashion”, etc, with such perspectives: could we, I wonder, see this new covering style as a “feminine” movement, giving the weakening male-dominated culture morale and confidence, or could we interpret it as a reaction for  the weakening patriarchal culture.

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